50-Word Review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander follows hot-headed Captain Aubrey as he hunts enemy ships. A meticulously-researched comedy of manners, the novel’s interested in the social structures of the time. Published in 1969, it’s essentially conservative, centring a white man, but does feature a gay man and POCs.

Word count: 50


50-Word Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin

Epic fantasy featuring a WOC protagonist caught up in the court intrigues of colonialist overlords. There’s also a polyamorous incestuous pantheon and a matriarchy: this is epic fantasy reimagined, and I liked it! Jemisin looks at oppressive structures of power and how few choices everyone has under them.

Review: The Margarets

Happy Halloween, if that is a thing you celebrate! Having thought up a tenuous thematic link this morning on the Tube, today I will be writing about monstrosity in Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets.

This review contains spoilers.

The Margarets is set at the end of the twenty-first century. Overpopulation has destroyed the biosphere: pretty much the only living things left on Earth are humans. The Interstellar Trade Organisation, which consists of a number of intelligent alien races of varying degrees of sympathy (more on which later), has given Earth an ultimatum: reduce the population drastically, or be destroyed. As a result, Earth’s governments enact brutal population control measures: excess children, defined as such under retroactively applied laws, are sold into bondage on other planets, probably never to return to their families on Earth.

Our Heroine is (surprisingly enough) Margaret. As a child growing up on Mars, she invents for herself six imaginary friends: a warrior, a shaman, a healer, a telepath, a queen and a spy. She eventually returns to an overcrowded Earth; and in times of stress or at important decision points in her life, these imaginary friends split from her, to become Margarets of their own (although they’re not all called Margaret, thank goodness). The novel follows these seven selves through the inhabited universe, as they experience slavery, diplomacy, domestic life, loneliness and military service among other things. It becomes clear that they’ve been created, seven selves who are one, by the benign, inscrutable, alien Gentherans, to save humanity from itself by restoring its racial memory and thus its sense of the importance of its natural environment.

So it’s a novel that’s about, among other things, humanity’s monstrosity: whether humans are monstrous or just flawed, whether humanity is redeemable, whether its mistakes are inevitable. In that sense, at least, its concerns are similar to those of quite a few liberal space operas I’ve read recently (Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 both come to mind); as well as in the sense that it sees humanity’s hope in communality, in shared experience and memory. But the way it constructs that monstrosity is kind of deeply troubling. If it’s progressive in outlook, in actual detail and content it feels weirdly 1950s.

Firstly and most obviously, those alien races. There are two kinds of alien races in the universe, apparently: good and evil. So the example Tepper gives us of true monstrosity is the reptilian Quataar race, slavers, torturers, murderers. Humanity is not like the Quataar. But neither is it like the Gentherans and similar races: high-minded, wise, protective of their environments.

This good/evil binary smacks of high fantasy racism; it is, at best, very tedious.

But, I mean, it’s not like Tepper stereotypes any human communities, right?

Oh, wait…

One of the Margarets encounters a tribe that’s essentially a Native American analogue. They speak in fractured English. They are violent kidnappers. They steal each other’s women. They are, in fact, not unlike the Quataar. This is a failure to imagine complexly how other cultures might live, a denial of exactly the kind of shared experience that Tepper insists is the only way humanity can be saved. This is making a monster out of something we don’t understand – that we haven’t done the work to understand. This is an extension of the kind of logic that divides fictional alien races into “good” and “bad”.

There are other examples. One of the Margarets, Naumi, is male, so that, the Gentherans say, the seven selves can experience as much of humanity as possible. This feels like a slightly essentialist way of looking at things, but okay! Except Naumi falls in love with his male best friend, and the novel again reads this as monstrous; fallout from his female origins; inadmissible in the order of the world; and he has to see his friend fall in love with another Margaret, a female one. Naumi’s queerness, Tepper’s telling us, is wrong, a mistake.

PSA: The Margarets was published in two thousand and fucking seven. I’d expect this kind of thing in a 1970s novel, maybe, but not in something published this side of 2000, and not in something shortlisted for the Clarke Award.

Another failure of empathy, another monster created by privilege: we find out near the end of the novel where cats come from. They are the brain-damaged children of the Gentherans. Yes: Sherri S. Tepper compares neurodiverse people to actual animals.

The Margarets gives us a seemingly hopeful answer to the problem of monstrosity: we’re not inherently monsters; we can, with time and cooperation, become as high-minded as the Gentherans. But so much seems to be lumped in with what Tepper sees as monstrous that her imagined future looks dystopically conformist rather than triumphant. I’d heard good things about Tepper’s work, especially Beauty, which was why I picked this up; but I won’t be reading any of her other novels.

Ten Books That Were Hard for Me to Read

  1. High-Rise – J.G. Ballard. There’s a certain kind of dystopia I find really hard to read: anything where society breaks down on-page, where people become less than people. I read High-Rise recently, so it’s still reasonably fresh in my memory: it’s set in a modern high-rise building, designed to be a self-sufficient vertical city, where people start to turn on each other. There’s animal cruelty and sexual violence in bucketloads, and I came quite close to putting it down (which I never do).
  2. Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler. For many of the same reasons as I found High-Rise difficult to read. There’s just this overpowering sense of loss and hopelessness to Parable of the Sower, an idea that everything we think of as normal can all become undone in just a few years.
  3. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. This is a very necessary book. It’s also a series of really awful things happening to the main character – things that (and this is going to sound trite, but) have direct parallels to what people of colour in the West really do experience every day. That’s its power and its horror.
  4. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. I mean. There are things I like about the Covenant books, but the prose is really, really dense, and some absolutely terrible things happen, and overall it’s really not a light read.
  5. The Dark Tower – Stephen King. Just for That Scene with Randall Flagg and Mordred. No. Please, no.
  6. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. The cannibal cult on Vavatch is just awful. And the rest of the novel is incredibly dark and chilly and hopeless and violent. (I’m still toying with reading the rest of the Culture series, though.)
  7. On – Adam Roberts. Like Consider Phlebas, I found On just quite barren? The concept behind the novel is precariousness; the idea that “the centre cannot hold”, that there’s nothing to cling to that doesn’t change as soon as you think you’re sure of it. It’s cleverly structured, but it’s also very dark and very violent, without any vitality to set that darkness off. Plus, I really wanted Roberts to stop calling penises “wicks”. (Yes, really.)
  8. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline. I literally wanted to throw this book out of a train window. That’s how fucking awful I found it: actively sexist, racist and homophobic, and poorly written to boot. (Lord help us, I see from the internet that there is going to be a film next year.)
  9. Age of Godpunk – James Lovegrove. See above, basically, only with bonus transphobia. HOW DOES THIS SHIT EVER GET PUBLISHED
  10. The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart. If you could do anything without fearing society’s judgement you would…have lots of dubiously-consensual sex and be a dick to everyone, apparently. (Really?)

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Class Review: Detained

I enjoyed Detained; I don’t have much to say about it.

The sixth episode of Doctor Who spin-off Class (which, no, I haven’t managed to finish watching yet), it’s a classic example of what Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge helpfully informs me is known as a bottle episode. Miss Quill puts the entire ka-tet into detention for mysterious reasons of her own, locking them into a classroom and stalking off in the way that only Katherine Kelly can. So, when a meteor smashes through the rip in space-time and propels the locked classroom into another dimension, there’s not much anyone can do about it: Our Heroes are trapped with a meteor that a) makes them irrationally angry with each other, and b) forces anyone holding it to confess their deepest darkest secrets. The episode follows them as they try to work out what has happened and how they can escape, without killing each other (or at least destroying their friendship, which when you are a teenager often feels like the same thing) first.

This is very simple storytelling; but I actually prefer it to the contrived, convoluted plotting of shows like Doctor Who, because its very simplicity allows it to make its character development explicit rather than subtextual. And character development is something Class does very well, especially for its genre. The storytelling in Detained may be simple, but its characterisation is anything but; it’s rare to find anything in SFF that’s this interested in group dynamics, in relationships under pressure. (I’m reminded, a little, of Firefly, which also shoves a found family into a confined space, with consistently interesting results.) I particularly like how Detained leans on the two romantic relationships in the series, revealing the cracks in them, showing up the fact that what seems like uncomplicated love is actually an agglomeration of more complex emotions: fear and insecurity and resentment among them. This is kind of an important message for YA as well as for SFF; too often in both markets we get romances that are a fait accompli, unbreakable and straightforward, when real-life relationships are hardly ever anything like that.

And how lovely is Tanya’s point that “We all feel like the one who’s left out, the one who the others can do without”? And how important is it that Charlie, the alien prince in charge of a hugely powerful weapon, has claustrophobia?

The BBC announced last month that Class has been cancelled after disappointing viewing figures. That’s a real shame, because there’s so little SFF – TV programmes, films or novels – that does half of the work Detained doe

Review: Affinity

TW: suicide.

This review contains spoilers.

Like her later novel Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ Affinity is formally an excellent copy of a classic Victorian novel, only with lesbians instead of straight people. Margaret Prior is an unmarried woman recovering from a suicidal depression. As part of her convalescence, she becomes a Lady Visitor at Millbank Prison, visiting female convicts, talking to them about their lives, and (in theory) guiding them to repentance and good behaviour.

One of these women is Selina Dawes, a spirit medium convicted of murder. As time wears on Margaret becomes ever more obsessed with Selina. Is she a guilty fraudster, an innocent victim, a real medium, or a combination of all three? And can she possibly share Margaret’s sexuality, which is part of what triggered her depression? The novel’s narrated through Margaret’s diary entries, making for a singularly claustrophobic account of her cloistered, unhappy existence, marked by the grief of her father’s death and her former lover’s marriage to her brother, by her mother’s overbearing nature and by the stone walls and inhumanity of Millbank.

On the face of it, this is a novel that should generate shedloads of potent ambiguity. Margaret’s slow decline into madness (complete with hefty doses of laudanum); our uncertainty as to whether the various oddnesses associated with Selina are magic or trickery; the ever-present awareness of repressed queerness; the epistolary format, with the questions that raises about the truth of the account we’re presented with – all of this feels like it should, or could, combine into something Gothically disturbing, a re-writing of the patriarchal literary tradition Waters is imitating, or pastiching.

But, unlike Fingersmith, Affinity never manages to ghost its own traditional plot structures. In particular, I’m bothered by its ending, which strongly implies that Margaret commits suicide because, in effect, she’s gay and cannot see a future that includes her. It’s not quite queer tragedy, because the three other lesbian characters presumably go on to have decent lives; in particular Selina and her girlfriend are triumphant. But neither is it a challenge to the patriarchal narrative that says LGBTQIA* people are doomed to death or isolation, a literal erasure.

There are better novels about women in prison: Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which I name-checked in my review of Fingersmith, is one. Affinity, unfortunately, feels like a very minor work; one which, just, fails of its promise.

Review: Told by an Idiot

I’d never heard of Rose Macaulay before my housemate lent me her Told by an Idiot, and while I don’t necessarily think it’s the most consequential work of literature out there I’m certainly glad I read it.

Published in 1923, the novel looks back over the last years of the Victorian age, following the Garden family over three decades between 1880 and 1914, roughly. Mr Garden (or papa) is a clergyman who loses his faith and finds a new one on a regularly rotating basis; his six children, Victoria, Maurice, Stanley, Una, Irving and Rome handle this and the various vicissitudes of the years in various ways. Our implied point-of-view character is Rome, a detached and rather cynical observer who, after a brief and tragic love affair, essentially opts out of the sound and the fury of it all, in order to enjoy the circus of life as best she can.

Reading Told by an Idiot, I found myself thinking of Jane Austen’s description of Pride and Prejudice: “light and bright and sparkling” – despite the novel’s apparent pessimism. It’s a witty book, written in wry, pacy prose:

You may, for instance, inquire of a popular preacher, or any one else, who denounces his countrymen as “pagan” (as speakers, and even Bishops, at religious gatherings have been known to do) what, exactly, he means by this word, and you will find that he means irreligious, and is apparently oblivious of the fact that pagans were and are, in their village simplicity, the most religious persons who have ever flourished, having more gods to the square mile then the Christian or any other Church has ever possessed or desired, and paying these gods more devout and more earnest devotion than you will meet even among Anglo-Catholics in congress.

It is not particularly interested in the inner lives of its characters; its main point, made a number of times over the course of the novel, is that there is nothing new under the sun, that young people of each generation are always thought more daring than any young people ever before, that life is, in fact, a sort of inconsequential merry-go-round, ridiculous and occasionally wonderful.

Like many witty novels, it has at its heart a vein of frustration and bitterness. The Gardens are a middle-class family; they never really have to worry about money; they are as privileged, really, as anyone could have been in the late 1800s without actually being members of the aristocracy. And yet they are prevented by their society from fulfilling their potential in a number of ways. Maurice becomes trapped in marriage to a beautiful but selfish woman who won’t give him a divorce until he’s too old realistically to consider marrying again; and Stanley becomes trapped in a marriage to a man who cheats on her repeatedly, only to insist on his love for her. Perhaps most interesting is one of Stanley’s daughters (whose name I cannot at this point remember), a girl and then a woman with a highly developed inner life in which she sees herself as a man – a man who can go sailing on the high seas and fight in wars and battle Red Indians in America. (Stanley’s daughter is, unfortunately, quite racist.) This doesn’t get explored very much, but it’s present enough as a storyline that I wondered if it can’t be read as an early trans narrative.

And yet. I think, ultimately, the novel’s answer to these frustrations is insufficient. It’s essentially a novel about Rome: a woman who chooses to step away from her society, to remain unmarried and cynical and jobless – all the things that a woman isn’t supposed to be. She simply chooses not to participate, in an era that involved among other things the suffragist movement and the Boer war. She chooses apathy, the comfort of telling herself that the world cannot be changed. And, through her, so does Macaulay.

In other words, it’s a novel that’s conservative at heart. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it: it’s a wonderfully light read given its age, and a fresh look at a period that often feels all too familiar. It does mean I didn’t agree with it. And that’s fine! We don’t, after all, have to agree with everything we like.